Raucous crowds come with every professional sporting event. When it comes to maintaining home court advantage, a rowdy fan base that gets into the heads of opposing players is invaluable.
But in some instances, fans take it too far.
That was the case on April 28, when the Oklahoma City Thunder took on the Utah Jazz in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs. With a chance to send the series back to Oklahoma City for a Game 7, the Thunder were met by a relentless Utah crowd whose team had not won a playoff series on its home court since 2010.
Tied at 41 heading into halftime, Thunder star Russell Westbrook was confronted by a fan who was leaning over a barricade and yelling at the Oklahoma City point guard as he walked to the locker room. Westbrook was not pleased with the fan and could be seen on video telling him to, “Back the [expletive] up.”
Following the game, which resulted in a 96-91 Utah victory to force the Thunder’s elimination, Westbrook was confronted by a different fan as he walked to the locker room. This time the fan put his camera in Westbrook’s face, when Westbrook immediately motioned to the fan to back away.
“I don’t confront fans, fans confront me,” Westbrook told reporters following the game, according to USA Today. “Here in Utah, man, a lot of disrespectful, vulgar things are said to the players here with these fans. It’s truly disrespectful. [They] talk about your families, your kids. It’s just a disrespect to the game and I think it’s something that needs to be brought up.”
Some would argue that Westbrook as a professional athlete and role model needs to have thicker skin when it comes to dealing with hecklers. However, in some cases fan abuse reaches a point where enough is enough.
Sometimes, fans seem to forget that athletes are people with emotions and feelings, just like them. It would not be right to hurl insults about one’s family to a random person on the street, so why act with such malice toward an athlete?
Westbrook was right to react in the manner he did. Professional athletes are not robots and have the right to display their emotions however they please, just as fans do.
“He could record from his seat, or from a normal position,” Portland Trail Blazers point guard Damian Lillard wrote in a tweet. “We make millions to PLAY, not be emotionless.”
Plenty of players around the league have had their fair share of run-ins with opposing fans this season as well. Golden State Warriors sharpshooter Klay Thompson, who dealt with a heckler in Milwaukee back in January, backed Westbrook and stressed the importance of opposing fans staying in their lane.
“As long as fans leave players’ children out of it and their family out of it, it’s fine,” Thompson said, according to USA Today. “They can attack our character. They can talk mess about us, but just as long as they don’t go out of bounds with using people’s children and their families. It’s just over the line.”
At the end of the day, there is only so much individual organizations and security teams can do to prevent incidents like the one Westbrook encountered in Utah. While stricter security measures could be implemented by the league, there is no easy way of monitoring every fan who enters the arena and what he or she might do while in the arena.
Until the NBA can figure out how to do away with personal attacks on players from the stands, Westbrook and any other player in the league have the right to express themselves as they see fit, when encountered with a heckler.
Tyler Calvaruso is a journalism major from Howell, N.J. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @tyler_calvaruso.